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9 Ways to Explore the Outdoors in Washington County, VA

Get ready to hike, bike, kayak and canoe your way through this beautiful haven ideal for recreation and relaxation.

By Kevin Litwin on March 2, 2023

Kayaking at Adventure Mendota
Adventure Mendota

The Appalachian Mountains are more than just a beautiful backdrop to Washington County residents. They are a piece of local legacy that represents community culture and identity.

The Appalachians also serve as a gateway to economic prosperity. That’s why locals band together to protect their most important asset – the great outdoors. If you value the outdoors and want to see opportunities for it to evolve in your community, Washington County may be the place for you. Here are 9 greaty ways to explore the outdoors in Washington County, VA.

1. Kayak Down the South Fork Holston River

While you will be putting in the work to paddle, you will have quite the relaxing outing canoeing down South Fork Holston River. Whether you paddle the approximately 14 miles of the river or stop somewhere before, you will have to take a moment to look for fish – it’s said to have 6,000 trout per river mile. The river is great for paddlers of all skill levels and is accessible year-round.

2. Or Grab a Paddle and Head to the Lake

Another water option is kayaking or riding personal watercraft on South Holston Lake, with the 7,850-acre water destination spread along the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains and fringed by the Cherokee National Forest.

“South Holston Lake is such an asset to this region, and by opening additional campsites at Washington County Park, we hope to attract even more tourists to the park to enjoy its beauty,” says Joy Allen, Washington County director of recreation. “The park now has 35 campsites for short term and longer visitor stays.”

3. Join an Adult Kickball League

Playing on a sports league is the perfect way to stay active and meet people in the community. Plus, you don’t have to be a pro to join the Department of Recreation’s kickball league. You can play for fun and burn a few calories.

Damascus Trail Center

4. Hike a Portion of the Appalachian Trail

Of course, hikers in this region also have easy access to the world-famous Appalachian Trail, which features challenging portions in Washington County. The town of Damascus is often viewed as a great stop for weary hikers along the AT, while Abingdon is also an excellent base camp for AT hikers who want to further experience the sights of Southwest Virginia.

And speaking of Damascus, it is known as “Trail Town USA” and celebrated a major milestone in August 2022 – the grand opening of Damascus Trail Center. Only the third center along the Appalachian Trail’s 2,200 miles, the Damascus site features in-depth programming and hands-on learning experiences to inspire visitors to protect the mountains and surrounding landscape.

Virginia Creeper Trail

5. And Be Sure to Hit the Virginia Creeper Trail

This 34.3-mile national recreation trail traverses through both Abingdon and Damascus. This means you’ll get to explore a large portion of Washington County – and all on foot. The Virginia Creeper Trail is considered one of the U.S.’s premier rail trails and it welcomes about 250,000 people a year.

6. Ride a Horse or Walk Your Dog on the Salt Trail

Whether you decide to take your four-legged friend that neighs or barks, you’ll both have fun trotting along this nearly 8.7-mile trail, which is mostly flat and clear and offers several shaded areas – perfect for warm, sunny days. The Salt Trail weaves through both woodland and farmland.

Mendota Trail

7. Bike the Mendota Trail

Another prime outdoor destination is the 12.5-mile Mendota Trail, which features gorgeous topography ranging from forestland to gentle countryside to gorges. The trail links Bristol to the unincorporated village of Mendota, a riverside community located at the foot of Clinch Mountain.

“Mendota Trail follows the old Southern Railroad bed and has been a long work in progress, with its final completion date finally scheduled for May 2023,” says Eva Beaule, board member and volunteer with the Mendota Trail Conservancy. “The overall cost has been about $2 million to get the trail where it should be, with about 50% coming from public dollars and 50% from private. We’ve had a lot of private support.”

Beaule says most of the money has gone toward the restoration of 17 thick trestles that support railroad bridges crossing various waterways.

“I walk the trail every day, and economically, we have only to look at the neighboring Virginia Creeper Trail to understand what the Mendota Trail can do for our region.”

Eva Beaule, Mendota Trail Conservancy

8. Score a Hole in One at Clear Creek Golf Club

Golfers of all skill levels will enjoy teeing off at Clear Creek Golf Club. This public course offers great playing conditions, from pristine fairways to smooth greens.

9. Break a Sweat at the Coomes Recreation Center

Spintensity, HIIT Strength, PowerFlex and Sculpt & Stretch – these are only a few of the many classes offered at Coomes Recreation Center. Not only will you love the variety of classes, but you’ll also have fun getting to know the friendly people who lead them.

Now Open!

The Meadows Sports Complex opened in 2022 in Abingdon. Spanning 34 acres and highlighted by four baseball diamonds, two full-size soccer fields, a splash pad and ADA-accessible playground, the complex provides visitors with easy access to the Virginia Creeper Trail. The complex is expected to be a boon to tourism by hosting a wide range of tournaments.

But Before You Venture Outdoors …

Everyone in Washington County knows about the area’s “Great Outdoors,” and local gear shops can help make adventures even more adventurous. A trio of businesses – Virginia Creeper Fly Shop, White Blaze Outdoors and Adventure Damascus Bicycle & Outdoor Co. – can help enhance vacation adventure activities such as camping, cycling, fishing, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, mountain biking or just walking.

Virginia Creeper Fly Shop is owned by lifelong fishing enthusiast Bruce Wankel. His store stocks apparel, accessories, flies, rods and reels. Wankel says Washington County is fortunate to have great fishing spots such as South Fork Holston River and Whitetop Laurel Creek, which are both known for their catches of trout.

White Blaze Outdoors is an outfitter that provides educational hiking tours as well as fly-fishing trips. The company’s shuttle takes adventurers to various hot spots throughout Washington County. Owner Justin Harris and colleague Kara Stewart lead the guided tours and trips, and both are longtime adventurers who believe that spending time in the nature of Washington County can be peaceful, therapeutic and spiritual.

At Adventure Damascus Bicycle & Outdoor Co., one of its most popular adventure offerings is taking customers on a bike shuttle to a high elevation and then letting them coast 17 miles downhill along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Besides bike rentals, the store on Laurel Avenue has plenty of hiking and camping gear for excursions along the Virginia Creeper, the Appalachian Trail and Iron Mountain Trail.

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